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The high notes of BC’S music scene

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By John Lee

“On my first day in Canada, I went to Capilano Park in North Vancouver and played my guitar out on the trails. A jogger came past and smiled – and that’s when I knew I was in the right  place,” says Salt Spring Island musician Harry Manx, whose celebrated blues, folk and Indian fusion can be heard on 11 albums. He was born in the U.K., but B.C. has been his home – and place of inspiration – since 2000.  

While he regularly plays concerts around the world – this year he’s strumming his stuff on stages from Wales to Lithuania – Manx says he never tires of entertaining audiences large and small in his adopted province. And after more than a decade in B.C., he’s also discovered that the region has a far richer and more diverse music scene than many locals and visitors imagine.

“You hear a lot about West Coast Blues, but I’m not really sure what that is,” says a chatty Manx during an on-the-road interview between gigs in Nelson, B.C., and Lethbridge, Alberta. “B.C.’s scene is based much more on the really wide range of artists who’ve chosen to live here. From Nickelback to Michael Bublé, and from jazz to pop, there’s a lot of great music coming from this region.”

And since Manx – master of slide guitar, stomp box and a 20-stringed classical Indian instrument called the Mohan Veena – tries to catch as many shows as he can in the province, he also has some handy insider tips for where to go and whom to see. For him, visitors should start by diving into the region’s multitudinous summer music festivals.

“The Vancouver Folk Fest is one of the best places to see what’s happening in blues and folk. And the Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival is also fantastic and highly recommended,” he says. “There are larger festivals around B.C. – sometimes with younger crowds – but as a musician you find your audience by the music you’re playing. I often find the smaller festivals are great for me, both for performing and for watching.”

While Manx describes B.C.’s thriving festivals as “world class,” he also says they’re not the only way to have a toe-tapping good time. Most cities have established live music clubs and theatres staging gigs throughout the year – the legendary Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver, for example – but Manx retains a soft spot for the region’s lesser-known grassroots venues.

“I really like to get to the smaller stages throughout the province, even though my management prefers me to play larger places,” he says with a chuckle. “The Dream Cafe in Penticton is great and Heriot Bay Inn on Quadra Island is also wonderful. I love these intimate places where I can really connect with the audience.”

For visitors, he suggests picking up entertainment guides and newspaper listings as soon as they arrive in a new town as “the best way to see what’s on stage locally.” Check out Manx’s website (harrymanx.com) to see if he’s performing nearby. He also suggests sampling a few lesser-known B.C. acts. His hot tip? “Look out for Steve Dawson – he’s a good player.”

While Vancouver might have the region’s most prodigious live scene, Manx says he’s in no hurry to move from Salt Spring. “I’m very fortunate to live here. It’s where I’ve written all my albums – it’s a very creative place,” he says. “I see [fellow resident and renowned artist] Robert Bateman a lot and I used to see Randy Bachman when he lived here – he used to play around town with his daughter. We all get to know each other on Salt Spring eventually: it seems like everyone here is in that artistic zone.”

Aside from performing around B.C. whenever he can, Manx also has several favourite spots in the province where he likes to lay down his guitar and get away from it all. “Every year, I go to Campbell River to go fishing with my son. And for total relaxation, my heart is in the Okanagan Valley – it’s really one of the most beautiful parts of British Columbia.”

Naturally, Manx’s province-wide travels have also taken him on more than a few ferry trips over the years. But has he ever been tempted to unpack his guitar on deck and pluck a few songs? “I’d love to but that takes courage. I’m inspired by the idea but I think if I pulled out my guitar, people might expect me to put on a show. Instead, whenever I’m on the ferry, I usually spend my time at the buffet.”

For Manx, it seems, playing B.C.’s festivals and live venues is reason enough to make the province his home. “I spend a lot of time touring all around the world but this is the place I love to come back to and perform – there’s really no place like it.”  

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